Why & How To Improve Self-Control

Jonathan Wold —  August 22, 2013 — 8 Comments

“Self-control” is something that most folks admit to struggling with and most folks want more of. Why is it so elusive? Some folks blame the times we live in and the access we have to more “temptations” than ever before. Others say self-control doesn’t matter and that “if it feels good, do it”. Still others try and try to force themselves to make certain choices, then achieve success for a time, only to fall and become more discouraged and demotivated than ever.

As a web developer, I’ve found the concept of self-control particularly relevant. I’ve studied the topic and experimented for years with varying degrees of success. As my business has grown and the demands on my time have increased, I’ve found the lessons I’ve learned (and the importance of reminding myself of those lessons) particularly important.

Why Self Control-Matters

As freelancers and business owners in the web development industry we are able to enjoy quite a few benefits, including:

  • Flexible Hours – Outside of scheduled interactions with clients, we can work just about anytime we want.
  • Flexible Work Environment - Web development is increasingly a “remote” industry with many of us choosing to work from the comforts of our home.
  • High Income Potential - As web developers, our income potential is high, matching and even passing that of many other more established professional industries.

Each of those benefits, though, offer a big “downside” as it relates to self-control. Here’s how:

  • The fact that we can set our own hours means that we can also choose not to work or work a lot less than a project needs.
  • With more and more of us working remotely, the fact that we can work from home means that our work environment (especially with children) can be easily distraction prone.
  • With a high income there is the temptation to “take it easy”. While experiencing the benefits of a high income is a great thing, a lack of self-control can lead us to that income for granted and waste it.

In my own experience I’ve noticed a clear correlation to a strong sense of self-control and success in my work. I’ve also noticed the same correlation to when I’ve felt “out of control” and the times where my quality of service has suffered.

For me, I’ve decided that a strong sense of self-control matters – a lot. I suspect that many of you have already reached the same conclusion and have decided that, yes, having more self-control matters.

What Is Self-Control?

Self-control (sometimes called self-regulation or self-discipline) is the ability to control what you think, feel, and do.

Roy Baumeister in his book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength suggests that willpower, the fuel that feeds your sense of self-control, is actually a finite resource and can be both exhausted and replenished by the choices you make.

That is why your sense of self-control can feel stronger in the morning after making a few good decisions (e.g. getting up earlier, eating a healthy breakfast, etc) then at the end of a long, stressful day at work when all you want to do is “take it easy” (and eat ice cream, and watch movies).

How To Improve Self-Control

With the understanding that self-control matters, the next logical step is to say “Ok, what can we do to improve self-control?” Based on Roy Baumeister’s book and on a presentation I recently listened to by Dr. Magna Parks2 I’ve compiled a list six strategies for improving self-control. Let’s jump straight to them!

1. Develop A Long-Term Focus

In the Fall of 2011, my wife and I decided to get out of debt. We had been in debt for years and, though we had a vague hope that we’d get out someday, somehow, we had lost all sense of priority and were doing our best just to keep up. We decided that we were done with that and it was time to focus. In just 3 1/2 months, we worked together to pay off $26,000 worth of debt by working very hard and exercising a high level of intensity. The time management and focus required to perform at that level demanded self-control and that self-control was fueled by a sense of long-term focus that took me beyond the challenges of the day.

If you’d like to improve your own sense of self-control, develop a long-term focus. Here are a few ideas:

  • Make It Clear - The very nature of focus requires that you have a clear grasp on what exactly you are trying to accomplish. My wife and I knew the amount of our debt to the penny and we earned, nearly to the penny, what it took to pay it off within just a day of the deadline to do so.
  • Create a “Dream Board” – Put up a blank poster board on your wall and tape pictures of your dreams to it. Look at it and focus on it for a minute or two each day. My wife and I created a dream board that Fall and, looking back now, we’ve achieved nearly everything on that list.

2. Develop A Self-Forgetful Attitude

When it comes to maintaining self-control we are our own worst enemies. If you’re craving something that isn’t good for you it becomes harder to resist the more you think about it. At the same time, distracting yourself from that craving and “forgetting” it makes it easier to resist. During my teenage years I developed an addiction to computer/video gaming. I fueled that addiction, with little restraint, for several years until I realized that there were more important things in life to focus my time and efforts on. To this day, though, I have to work to control my past addiction. When the demands on my time are particularly stressful the desire to finish work and just go “game” suddenly pop-up and the more I think about that desire or imagine the games I could play the harder it becomes to resist the urge to play and the more the quality of the work I’m doing suffers. The answer? I push the thoughts aside and distract myself from those desires by focusing on something else.

If you’re struggling with an addiction or simply a lack of self-control with a particular desire, cultivate an attitude of self-forgetfulness and distract yourself from those cravings and desires by switching your thoughts to something else. Here are a few ideas:

  • Stand Up - Step away from that self-focused situation and move on to focus your attention on something else.
  • Help Someone Else - A good way to be “self-forgetful” is to focus your energy on being of help to someone else. Take a break from what you’re working on and help out around the house. Take your dog for a walk or volunteer to take your neighbor’s dog for a walk.

3. Create A Pre-Commitment Strategy

Keeping in mind that willpower is a finite resource one excellent strategy for improving self-control is to simply make decisions in advance. This why the concept of a schedule is so powerful. Make your decisions in advance when it’s easy to do so and then, when a difficult situation arises, there’s no need to exercise willpower and self-control to make the right choice – the choice was already made.

Here are a few examples of pre-commitment strategies:

  • For my current morning routine I set out my shoes the night before. When I wake up, I get out of bed, tired or not, put my clothes and shoes on, and head out for my morning walk. I made the decision the night before and, when the morning came, I didn’t have to lay in bed and figure out what to do next – I already knew.
  • When I create my schedule for the week I set aside blocks of time for each of my project commitments. When that time rolls around, whether I feel like working on that project or not, I don’t have to think about it – the decision was already made. It’s on the schedule, so I get to work.

If you want to improve your sense of self-control, make things easier for you by making decisions in advance.

4. Involve People You Care About

Accountability is a powerful strategy for strengthening and maintaining a sense of self-control. My brother and I noticed that we were sleeping in on the weekends (which tends to make it harder to keep getting up early during the rest of the week) so he took the initiative to plan early morning adventures (e.g. hiking a trail, climbing a mountain, kayaking, etc) that required getting up early. So, whereas I might have normally slept in on a Saturday or Sunday morning, I knew that Joshua was expecting me to join him at 5 AM to climb a mountain and I didn’t want to let him down. Suddenly, an area that I struggled with (getting up early on weekends) wasn’t a problem because I involved people I cared about.

Here are a few ideas for involving people you care about:

  • Scheduled Reviews - Pick a consistent time, on a weekly or even daily basis to connect with someone you care about and give a progress report. When my brother and I were working to get on the habit of waking up by 5 AM we would text each other when we woke up, which would help to prompt and encourage each other to keep it up.
  • Stated Intentions - If you’re working to improve self-control in a particular area, let a spouse or family member know. Just the act of saying it out-loud, especially in the context of someone who wants to see you succeed, can go a long ways towards strengthening your ability to stick to your intention.

5. Establish Clear Personal Rules & Boundaries

Along with creating a pre-commitment strategy, setting up clear “If A then B” rules and boundaries for yourself can help eliminate the need to exercise extra willpower and make staying “in control” a lot easier. For instance, if you’re a smoker and trying to quit, pay for your gas at the pump rather than walking inside where you have the option to buy cigarettes. If you’re trying to cut back on junk food, set a clear limit (perhaps “nothing” or “only 1 piece”) rather than a fuzzy “oh, I’ll just eat a little bit.”

When it comes to running a web development business, most rules and boundaries that I setup involve how I prioritize and manage my time. For instance, I know that the early part of the day is the best time for more brain intensive activities (like writing or programming). Accordingly, I avoid scheduling calls and checking email until after I’ve accomplished my morning objectives. I am then able to spend time on communication with the satisfaction that I’ve already accomplished a major objective for the day.

Another example is creating rules for how I spend my time after work. In order to get up early the next day it’s important that I get to bed at a good time (my target is between 9 and 10 PM) – accordingly, I’ve created a personal rule to not use “media” (unless my wife and I are doing so together) after 8 PM. That ensures I don’t let myself get lost reading tech news or following my friends on Facebook.

Look for ways to setup clear personal rules and boundaries in your own life to make exercising self-control easier. Here are a few ideas:

  • Setup Reminders - If you’re creating a new habit or trying to break an old, setup reminders. The glass of water on my desk reminds me to keep drinking throughout the day. The chart on my desk reminds me to make sure that I eat my fruits and vegetables for the day and that I get outside to get some fresh air and sunshine. Setup reminders, using objects, or time-reminders on your phone or computer, to help you stick to your personal rules.
  • Setup Schedules - If you’re dealing with a lot of interruptions or you’re just having a hard time focus, put a schedule to work and pre-determine what you’re going to work on. Then, ignore the interruptions till after the scheduled block of time is completed. If you’re struggling with procrastination, setup a block of time where you will either do the task or do nothing until the time is passed (most folks find it hard to sit or stand and do nothing).

6. Become More Consistent With Religious Activities

Roy Baumeister found that actively religious people, on average, have a higher amount of willpower than those who did not partake in religious activities. When I get out of bed and go for a morning walk I pray during my walk. On my return, I spend time reading the Bible and other material of a religious or devotional nature. The Bible, and the focus and emphasis of the other materials I engage, encourage my sense of self-control and provide a deeper motivation to keep at it. The name of my business, Strive For Mastery, is taken from 1 Corinthians 9:25, which reminds me that “Everyone who strives for the mastery is temperate in all things” – being temperate means exercising self-control in good things and avoiding entirely those things that do me harm.

Much of what I’ve achieved in life has drawn motivation from my religious convictions. Getting out of debt was sparked by a simple reminder that the Bible says to “Owe no man anything except love”. My sense of personal responsibility and integrity is also drawn from the examples and instructions I find in the Bible.

Make time to engage in religious activities and encourage and motivate your sense of self-control. As a Christian, and particularly as a Seventh-day Adventist (I don’t work on Saturdays and I work to cultivate good health), I personally recommend that you take time to pray throughout your day and that you spend time, even just a few minutes, reading the Bible (the Gospels, Proverbs, and Psalms are great books to start). You’ll find encouragement and motivation that maintains and strengthens your sense of self-control.

Conclusion

Improving self-control is a difficult task, but it is worth the effort. As a freelancer or business owner in the web development industry, a strong sense of self-control is particularly valuable and even essential to achieving success. Putting some or all of these strategies to work will help make improving and maintaining a sense of self-control easier and, based on my own experience and the experience of many others, I can assure you with confidence that success will follow.

And that’s a wrap! What do you think? What lessons have you learned about self-control or what are some of the aspects of self-control that you’ve struggled with? What questions do you have? Share your thoughts in the comments below and I look forward to hearing from you!

Jonathan Wold

Posts Twitter

Jonathan lives and works in Northern Idaho with his wife Joslyn, his son Jaiden, and his daughter, Jensyn.

8 responses to Why & How To Improve Self-Control

  1. Would you believe I got here by getting sucked into my emails after checking a support email I had to get to? It is not hard to imagine I could benefit a 10% improvement in efficiency and to the bottom line by put a few of these strategies into action.

    • Ha! I know that challenge all to well : ). One thing you can try is have your email client only retrieve new messages on demand so that you’re not seeing them as they come in if you *do* have to go and retrieve a particular message.

      Another idea is to take “todos” out of the inbox when they come in so that email is only for email and that the references you need exist outside the inbox.

  2. Very timely and good article. I was in mid of doing something about my schedules to improve effectiveness and your article ensured I am right and added more valuable ideas to my work. I am sure this benefits me and many others a lot.

    Thank you so much Jon!

    Ken

    • You are very welcome, Ken! Thank you for stopping by! Developing my schedule and ensuring that my priorities are well represented is some of the most valuable time I spend. I’m glad you were able to get a few more ideas! Keep up the good work.

  3. Jonathan,

    Great post top to bottom! I was first reading this with a ‘friend’ of mine who didn’t appreciate the religious references, but I’m glad you included them. You’ve mentioned some great strategies and truisms that transcend any particular faith — in fact, most of what you’ve listed here for ‘self control’ can be found in, in various guises, in secular practices of therapy, and in timeless religious principle of both the Abrahamic and Dharmic faiths. One example that jumps out is your advice for developing a ‘Self Forgetful Attitude’. I totally agree, if someone is self-absorbed and this ties in with some sort of addiction, you’re talking about one of the highest principles of several religions, i.e., ‘Selfless Service’ aka ‘Seva’. I highly recommend anyone reading this Google it. Hindus, Sikhs practice ‘Selfless Service’.. Sikhs a mandate. Yes, ‘Help Someone Else’ with no expectation of reciprocal personal gain . It has to be ‘selfless’.. again, great post.

  4. I’m really struggling with getting up early in the morning…..I can stay up in the night….what time is a good time to start day for freelancers..?

    • Hey Veena! Getting up early has definitely been one of the keys to my success – but it’s not easy! The hardest part for me has been making sure that I get to bed on-time. My general rule of thumb is to get 7 hours of sleep at night. Considering my “ideal” wake-up time of 4 AM, that means I need to be asleep by 9 PM – which doesn’t usually happen. Most nights, I am sleeping closer to 10 and, accordingly, wake up around 5.

      Now, as far as figuring out a good time, it really depends on what works best for you. In general, I think 5 AM is a great goal time.

      One resource that may be of help is the “Early to Rise Book” (I used the AudioBook version): http://www.earlytorisebook.com – It was particularly helpful in giving me something to “do” first thing in the morning when I was working to get myself back in the habit.

  5. I found this searching for more insight to a college business strategy for web design II. It was a very interesting first day, learning how much to charge a client. Then I found you, exciting, even more now…Thank you! Many Blessings

Leave a Reply

*

Text formatting is available via select HTML.

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>